The Battle Cry: 2014, The Year the Swords and Sandals Returned

We’re less than a week into the New Year and I’ve already discovered a rather alarming trend for the year, which is that studios seem to be willing to spend money on making big sword and sandals movies again.

These epic movies were popular during the early days of cinema, but then they went away for a while with a few notable resurrections over the years, the first major one of the 21st Century being Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000, which was successful enough that studios started seeing the big historic war epics as viable again. Six years later, Zack Snyder’s 300 helped give the genre a bigger boost by creating a far more stylish war epic based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel using state of the art CG backgrounds. Falling right between them was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, which proved that there was a huge audience of faithful Catholics and Christians who were willing to flock to see a movie about their religious icon. While that wasn’t an action movie per se, its biblical setting puts it into a similar genre as the other two and that ended up grossing $370 million.

Those were three of the bigger successes, but in between there were a lot of outright bombs like Oliver Stone’s Alexander and even some of Ridley Scott’s other attempts like The Kingdom of Heaven (which ended up doing bigger business internationally), and then you had movies like the attempted Conan the Barbarian remake starring Jason Momoa that barely made $63 million worldwide despite the namebrand value of the character from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘80s movie.

Anyone with half a brain and a bankroll would probably look at some of the failures and think, “These movies are expensive to make and modern moviegoers seem to be less interested in seeing movies set during biblical and historic times…”

And yet… they’re back! And this year, we’re not necessarily talking just about movies about great leaders of war or historic events, but we’re talking about actual movies based on some of the heroes from the bible, and everyone from Ridley Scott to Paul W.S. Anderson are getting in on the act with nearly every studio having some stake in the race.

Things kick off this Friday with the rush-to-release The Legend of Hercules (Summit – Jan. 10), starring Kellan Lutz and directed by Renny Harlin, which Summit is clearly trying to get out there before marketing kicks in for Paramount and MGM’s bigger budget Hercules, directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and being released in the middle of summer on July 25. These are both action movies based on the mythological demi-God who has appeared in numerous movies over the decades but hasn’t been on the big screen in some time, and it’s somewhat odd to have two Hercules movies in one year.

There’s also movies like Pompeii 3D (TriStar Pictures – Feb. 21), the new movie from “Resident Evil” mastermind Paul W.S. Anderson, which will try to recreate the volcanic eruption that wiped out the city… in 3D, no less.

A week earlier, we get the first of the religious epics to hit theaters, which is Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s biblical epic Son of God (20th Century Fox – Feb. 28)–a feature film culled from footage taken from the ratings hit History Channel series “The Bible.” One wonders how many people might actually go see that footage in theaters, especially if they’d already seen the television series, but maybe there are people who don’t have cable who might go to theaters to see it, similar to The Passion of The Christ.

Even filmmaking auteur Darren Aronkofsky is getting in on the act with Noah (Paramount – March 28), which looks to be a huge biblical epic derived from one of the most famous stories from the Book of Genesis. And then later in the year, Ridley Scott gets back into the act with Exodus, currently in production for a Christmas release. At the same time, Ang Lee has been circling a project called Gods and Kings about the life of Moses. One has to assume that all three of these movies will be trying to appeal to religious groups similar to The Passion of The Christ, although they’ll also need to offer big set pieces for other moviegoers.

In some ways, the odd men out that still fall into this same general category are the upcoming 300: Rise of the Empire (Warner Bros. – March 7), which will take the more stylish route of its predecessor and even Dracula Untold (Universal – Oct. 17) involves a historical battle that makes it more like The Mummy than the classic Bram Stoker telling of Dracula’s origin.

This raises the question of whether more Americans are looking for these types of movies or specifically looking for more religious fare in movie theaters in order to reinforce their beliefs or there are other forces at work that believe that 2014 is the year to try to get people to see these sorts of big epics.

One thing that certainly is contributing to studios wanting to make more of these movies is probably due to the success of the HBO show “Game of Thrones,” which has proven so popular mainly because they’ve been able to create a long-form story that allows things to play out at a slower pace than a 2-hour movie while also including the huge set pieces that moviegoers crave. (Kit Harrington from the show is one of the main stars of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii, trying to solidify that synergy between projects.) Other shows that have been very popular include STARZ’s “Spartacus,” which brought in such big audiences and created a cult fanbase that the movie studio production teams have figured

The problem is that it’s usually very expensive to make these kinds of movies since it literally means creating a world, making all the costumes and weapons from scratch and even with various tax rebates and the opportunities to recycle, we’re talking a minimum cost of $80 to 100 million for some of these movies. That’s not to knock Renny Harlin, Paul W.S. Anderson or Brett Ratner, all of whom seem to be able to keep getting work and keep raising the money to make their visions, but shows like the ones mentioned above have been able to create these huge epics about times past for relatively cheap by shooting in Europe and other places where labor is fairly cheap.

So yeah, there’s a definite sea change going on right now at the studios where they feel audiences are ready to go back in time and see biblical stories and characters brought to life as well as historic action battle movies… but let’s not forget that Universal Studios just tried to revive the samurai genre with 47 Ronin to the expensive tune of $175 million and that movie is never going to see that money back.

But don’t worry, one or more of the films above will bomb so badly that studios will probably leave well enough alone for years, although I think Noah and Exodus could be this year’s gamechangers in the case of trying to bring religion and the Bible back to movie theaters in a big way. Obviously, in the case of these epics, the bigger the better and their respective studios are going to be marketing the movies as the type of epics we haven’t seen since the days of Cecil B. DeMille. And hopefully, American audiences will be as interested in them, because normally these types of movies do better overseas.

Let me know in the comments how you feel about this – whether you want to see any or all of these “swords and sandal” movies coming out over the course of the year or if you have no interest whatsoever.

Copyright 2014 Edward Douglas

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